How the Great War Might Have Gone Otherwise
by Gwydion M. Williams
Since Lloyd George had vigorously opposed the British Empire’s crushing of the Dutch settler republics in South Africa’s Second Boer War, most historians suppose that his opposition to the much more dreadful War of 1914-15 was a foregone conclusion. But a closer study suggests otherwise. The Boer War was a Tory war, and one on which the Liberal Party was badly split. In the 1890s, Lloyd George was a new MP and gained national fame by his unpopular opposition to the a war that went badly. But he was not inherently a foe of either war or empire. Though there were always some Britons who disliked the Empire as such, he was not one of them. He asserted Welsh interests, but he also felt that Wales close to the core of the British Empire was much preferable to what Wales alone might have been.
Between the 1890s and the 1900s, Lloyd George passed from protest to power. For as long as he was in government and a rising star, he had gone along with the small clique within the governing Liberal Party that saw Germany as an emerging foe that must be put down as soon as possible. In his memoirs, he mentions how he had been increasingly influenced by Winston Churchill. Churchill had participated in the war against the Boers, but had worked very smoothly as Lloyd George’s deputy at the Board of Trade. They then both ascended the ranks of cabinet posts, with Lloyd George becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908 and Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911.
History was perhaps changed by the Marconi Scandal of 1912. Long after the event, Lloyd George was willing to admit that he had been more than a little corrupt, buying shares in US Marconi while being aware of planned government purchases of equipment from British Marconi. He and his ministerial co-conspirators had covered this in the initial questioning in Parliament with the statement that they owned no shares in ‘the company’. This was technically truthful, yet highly misleading. It was well known that shares in the two Marconi companies rose and fell together – that they truly represented a single set of financial and commercial interests.
As it happened, someone unknown noticed the ambiguity and tipped off the Chesterton brothers, already sworn foes of Lloyd George. They immediately brought it to public attention it in their magazine The Eye-Witness. It was taken up in the House of Commons, with Tory back-benchers demanding that Lloyd George and the other ministers clarify the matter. Unable to deny owning shares in the other Marconi, and no longer supported by Prime Minister Asquith, Lloyd George was forced to resign from his high office as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He spent most of the next two years nursing his grievances on the back benches.
At the time, most people saw this as the end of his political career. In fact it was just the beginning. Out of the squalor came deeds for which we must all be enormously grateful. The world would soon learn that there are much worse sins than corrupt dealings which did small harm to anyone.
In a closely guarded document that was held in trust by a relative and published after his death, Lloyd George admitted his Marconi guilt, but said “I took a little money, at no great cost to anyone, because Marconi really was the best choice. The other side were determined to kill off most of our best young men in an unending deadlocked conflict, for the sake of vanity and a delight in war.” And he added “had I tried putting things like that at the time, I should have destroyed my standing and done no good for anyone. Which is why I used the meaningless phrase ‘broadly innocent’ at the time. I kept myself in being as a political force if I were ever needed again. Which of course I was, though unexpectedly, for I had not foreseen Britain getting involved in another big war.”
Having passed from protest to power in the 1900s, Lloyd George’s loss of power made it logical for him to pass back to protest, if he could find a good issue. He was sensibly cautious about it, sticking to minor issues in the immediate aftermath of his fall. On the issue of a possible European war, he was initially cautious, not wishing to be seen as spoiling the British government’s apparent attempts to broker a deal.
The crisis of 1914 began with a Serbian extremist assassinating the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, capital of the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria-Hungary had taken control of the ethnically-mixed territory from the Ottoman Empire and later annexed it, but Serbs claimed it as part of their homeland. This was of no great concern to Britain, but when Austria-Hungary demanded the right to participate in a Serbian investigation as to whether members of the Serbian intelligence service had been involved in the assassination, this proved a sticking point.
The notion of such an involvement was far from ridiculous. The Serbian intelligence service was dominated by a secret organisation called Unification or Death – also known as the Black Hand, though it was profoundly different from various criminal or anarchist organisations that also used the name. Unification or Death was a faction at the core of Serbia’s military-political establishment. Serbia during the 19th century had freed itself from the Ottoman Empire by hard struggle and without much outside help. It had also acquired two rival royal dynasties in the process. In the May Coup of 1903, the dynasty then in power was violently overthrown, with the King, Queen and Prime Minister all assassinated, along with two of the Queen’s brothers. This ended the Obrenovich dynasty, which had been ready to co-exist with Austria-Hungary. It was replaced by the Karadjordjevic dynasty, whose founder had led the First Serbian Uprising and gained brief independence. The founder of the Obrenovich dynasty led the Second Serbian Uprising and achieved semi-independent status for the Principality of Serbia. This was gradually raised to full independence and the status of a kingdom, with much territory added. But the feud between the two dynasties (both home-grown) was never ended, with Karadjordjevic restored in 1842 and replaced again in 1858, as one consequence of the Crimean War.
Now in 1903 the Karadjordjevic dynasty was back, hostile to Austria-Hungary and keen to complete the gathering-together of ethnic-Serb territory. It gained much from the Balkan Wars, including territories claimed by Bulgaria and Albania. A desire to complete the process by taking Bosnia and Herzegovina was natural enough, but the territory had a mixed population of Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, with the latter two mostly identifying themselves as Serbs and Croats. Orthodox Christians were the largest minority, but no more than 43%. The territory had been part of the Ottoman Empire, but Austria-Hungary had gained control of it in 1878 and had formally annexed it in 1908. German support for Austria-Hungary persuaded Russia and Serbia to recognise this, but there was continuing Serb resentment.
Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic had organised the murder of the Obrenovich king in 1903, and in 1914 was both the leader of “Unification or Death” (Black Hand) and Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence. There has always been a strong belief that he sent the assassins who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne and a man committed to raising the status of Serbs and other Slavonic groups within Austria-Hungary. So it was entirely reasonable to ask that outsiders investigate the matter. Since the Serbian government had broadly the same aims as Dimitrijevic, it was sensible to doubt they would be willing to find him guilty. (There have in fact been remarkably few cases of the intelligence services of any nation being punished for actions against foreign powers.)
Serbia accepted many points of the Austria-Hungary demand after the assassination of their heir to the throne. But they refused the key demand, they refused to let its intelligence service be quizzed by outsiders. Austria-Hungary threatened war. Tsarist Russia pledged itself to join such a war, if it happened. This in turn brought in Germany with its commitment to Austria-Hungary and France with its alliance to Russia.
Why was Germany committed to Austria-Hungary? Germany had excellent reasons to suppose that the 1892 treaty between Republican France and Tsarist Russia was aimed at them. It was a tie-up between the most progressive and least progressive large states in Europe, an alliance that made no sense unless the aim was to weaken Germany, allowing France to recover Alsace-Loraine and Russia to advance through the Balkans and take Constantinople, spiritual home of Orthodox Christianity. A cleverer and more cynical ruler of Germany might have been ready to stay friends with Tsarist Russia by allowing a carve-up of Austria-Hungary, former rival to Prussia in the unification of Germany. Might have stood aside while Russia took Constantinople, on the understanding that Russia would support Germany against France. But the actual choice of Germany under Emperor Wilhelm the Second was to back Austria-Hungary and to seek to preserve the remains of the Ottoman Empire as a state that the world’s Muslims could look to. And indeed the Ottoman Empire had turned a corner and begun to modernise under the Young Turks. These had mutinied in 1908 and forced the Sultan to give them effective political power, replacing that Sultan with his brother the following year.
But why did Britain join in? For many years, there had been a growing view among the elite of the British Empire that Germany was the main immediate threat to British global hegemony. But this did not much concern ordinary Britons, who by the early 20th century had become sufficiently powerful to stop a war they disagreed with. This explains the otherwise baffling ambiguity over Belgian neutrality when a wider war began to seem likely.
It was known that there might be an issue if Germany attacked France via Belgium, since the British Empire had guaranteed Belgian neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London. But there was no definite statement by Britain as to whether or not Britain would see it as a cause for war. The mysterious silence on the matter when a diplomatic settlement still seemed possible was later seen as highly significant.
A definite statement that a march through Belgium would bring in Britain against Germany would probably have persuaded them to use some other plan, or perhaps avoid war completely. The fact that it was all left vague until Germany was committed suggests that it was just a pretext.
Whatever his private reasons, Asquith claimed that the invasion of Belgium obliged Britain to join the war. He had some hopes of carrying his party with him. But Lloyd George was firmly against, and from the back benches he decisively undermined him. He ridiculed the idea that Belgium was worth it, at least if Germany merely passed through and did not seek to annex it.
Lloyd George with a determined campaign of speeches gained much sympathy among ordinary Britons, and also in the Dominions. People listened when he asked why on earth British lives should be risked helping France and Russia, traditional foes? Taking the new German Empire to be Prussia writ large, Britain had not been seriously at war with Prussia since the War of the Austrian Succession in the first half of the 18th century. And Prussia had been an enormously useful ally in the Seven Years War, which had given Britain both North America and India. A key ally again in the Napoleonic Wars, with Blucher’s Prussians saving the day and ending Napoleon’s career at Waterloo. Why suddenly were Britain’s old friends being treated as a menace? And should Britain really take a stand on Serbia’s right to shield members of its intelligence services who had very possibly been the hidden hand behind a brutal regicide? Killing a well-meaning Archduke whose declared intention was to raise the status of all Slavs including Serbs within the Empire? Hiding possible links with an assassin who had also shot dead the Archduke’s decent and inoffensive wife?
These arguments proved effective. It was privately suggested to Asquith by some of his Liberal colleagues that it might be wise to give Lloyd George his old job back, just to shut him up. Whether this would have worked is one of history’s unknowns: Asquith showed typical bad judgement by refusing to consider any such deal.
In the end Asquith could not bring Britain into the war with the votes of his own party, which he then split, leading a rump into a coalition with the Tories. Briefly he seemed to have triumphed, with a massive wave of patriotism as it became clear that the war was going to happen.
European wars in the two centuries before 1914 had mostly been limited wars in which professional armies fought each other until it one side had a decisive advantage and took some limited gains at the expense of the defeated. It had not always been so: the Thirty Years War had ruined Germany for several generations. But even the Napoleonic Wars were relatively limited and ended with a conscious decision to restore France to roughly its pre-Revolution status, rather than trying to break its power for ever. Apart from the partition of Poland, ding-dong battles left the rival political entities largely unchanged.
The special feature of the First World War is that it was fought to the bitter end, with enormous losses to both sides. Out of six major powers who were participants in 1914, four emerged as utterly different political entities. The other two, the British Empire and Imperial France, were damaged far beyond any actual gains they made in the war. Within half a century of their nominal victory, they both lost their imperial possessions and were reduced to little more than their ethnic cores. Modern apologists have to pretend that Britain fought for something other than the preservation of the British Empire, which was not what was said at the time.
So why did six powers start a war that was in the long run lost by all of the political entities that began it? And more pointedly, why did they carry on with it after the first hopes of a cheap quick victory were lost?
No simple answer is possible about who started the First World War. But if you ask why it didn’t end when it had become a stalemate in late 1914, things become much clearer. The German government was entirely ready to accept a return to the position before the war. If they had expansionist ambitions – which is questionable – then they were definitely not deeply committed to them. Whereas the government of the British Empire was flatly against such a peace and rejected various attempts at mediation. France and Russia would also have been reluctant to end a war without some definite success, but Britain alone could have quit the war without immediate loss.
So how might it have been otherwise?
In 1912, novelist G K Chesterton and his brother Charles Chesterton had a magazine called The Eye-Witness, renamed the New Witness in 1914. It became G. K.’s Weekly from 1925 and then The Weekly Review till 1948, when it folded. Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if Private Eye was in some way intended to commemorate The Eye-Witness – there are some similarities in outlook. Regardless, Charles Chesterton was a deeper thinker than his elder brother and Distributionism might have got further had he not died in 1918 of wartime wounds. And they’d have been better placed to become a major force if the 1914 war had ended with right-wing accusations of betrayal by a Tory leadership that had made peace without clear victory or punishment of Germany.
It’s worth adding that there’s an opinion that the big fuss over Marconi “eventually ended Marconi and Britain’s chances of regaining global dominance of radio, leaving the door open for the fast-rising American telecommunications industry.” I don’t know the details, but it sounds plausible. Entrepreneurship and corruption are really two aspects of the same things. And what I’ve read of G K Chesterton’s non-fiction suggests an ill-informed outlook that ranted about finance and bribery and failed to notice that it was industrial capitalism that was doing the main damage to his cherished way of life.
In actual history, the Chesterton brothers and their friend Hilaire Belloc were not smart enough to notice the ambiguities in Lloyd George’s remarks about “the company”. So I have it that someone unspecified would have had to tip them off.
I have no solid basis for suggesting that Churchill turned Lloyd George into a warmonger. All we know is that he chose to vote for war when the time came. But it’s a fair speculation that had he been resentful and without a job to lose if the government fell, he would have acted otherwise.
It would be easy enough to write an alternate history in which there is an unexpected outbreak of virtue and goodwill that takes everyone by storm, as Wells does in his fantasy-novel In the Days of the Comet. He handled it much more realistically in The World Set Free, published in 1914 a little before the actual war. Yet when the real war occurred, Wells joined the war-mongering yahoos and expressed appalling sentiments in Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which blames Germany for everything. So, peacemaking in the face of a real war is much harder than it seems.
The Tories in 1914 were mostly keen on a war, so a failure by Asquith to bring the Liberal Party along with him would not have prevented Britain joining the war. But a division of opinion between the two traditional governing parties would have provided a much more solid basis for an early peace movement.
Asquith actually started the war as undisputed Liberal leader, switching to a coalition with the Tories in May 1915. Lloyd George followed him, first becoming Minister for Munitions and then Secretary of State for War after Kitchener’s death in June 1916. In December 1916 he led a cabinet revolt that overthrew Asquith and became Prime Minister. Asquith’s followers became the official opposition, but both sides supported the war. Lloyd George proved better able to win it, but was in turn overthrown by the Tories in 1922.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams
This first appeared in Past Historic, the magazine of the Mensa History Group